Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority Experiments: Towards an Understanding of Their Relevance in Explaining Aspects of the Nazi Holocaust

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posted on 2021-11-09, 22:27 authored by Russell, Nestar John Charles

Two leading Holocaust historians, Yehuda Bauer and Christopher Browning, have in recent years independently asked how so many ordinary Germans (most of whom in the 1930s had been moderately anti-Semitic) could become by the early 1940s willing murderers of Jews. Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, had years before been interested in finding answers to similar questions, and to that end in the early 1960s carried out his widely debated "Obedience to Authority" (OTA) experiments at Yale University. Drawing on previously unpublished material from Milgram's personal archive at Yale, this thesis investigates how Milgram developed his research idea to the point where, by the time he ran his first official experiment, he was able to convert the majority of his ordinary subjects into torturers of other people. It is argued that Milgram's experiments were in themselves structured as a bureaucratic microcosm, and say less about obedience to authority, per se, than about the ways in which people in an organisational context resolve a pressing moral dilemma. The thesis uses insights gained from Milgram's experimental innovations to assist in answering the question posed by Bauer and by Browning, focusing on the Nazis' progressive development of mass killing methods, from 1941 to 1944, during Operation Barbarossa and Operation Reinhard. It is shown how these methods were designed to diminish perpetrators' perceptual stimulation, in order to make the "undoable" increasingly "doable", in ways that were later reflected in Milgram's development of his own experimental methodology.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Public Policy

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Government


Gigliotti, Simone; Gregory, Bob